How Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Became The Icon Of Bengali Nationalism

How Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Became The Icon Of Bengali Nationalism
Sheikh Mujib Ur Rahman was at once the most iconic, controversial, hated and loved political leaders of Pakistan. Born on 17 March 1920 in the village Tungipara under the Gopalganj sub-division in the district of Faridpur, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s father Sheikh Lutfar Rahman was a serestadar in the civil court of Gopalganj. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman passed his matriculation from Gopalganj Missionary School in 1942, IA (Twelfth Grade) from Islamia College, Calcutta in 1944, and BA from the same College in 1947. In 1946, Mujib was elected general secretary of the Islamia College Students Union. He was an activist of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League and a member of the All-India Muslim League Council from 1943 onwards. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a founding member of the East Pakistan Muslim Students League (established in 1948), one of the founding joint secretaries of the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League (established in 1949), general secretary of the Awami League (1953-1966), president of the Awami League (1966-1974), president of Bangladesh (in absentia from 26 March 1971 to 11 January 1972), Prime Minister of Bangladesh (1972-24 January1975) and president of Bangladesh (25 January 1975-15 August 1975).

It was in February 1966, in Lahore, that Sheikh Mujib dropped the bombshell of his six-point program on the political elite and the military establishment of Pakistan. By this time, he was the political heir to the former Prime Minister and Bengali leader Hussain Shaheed Suhrwardy, General Secretary of the Awami League and a rising star in the Bengali nationalist movement that was gaining momentum in East Pakistan. His six-point program for regional autonomy for the federating units of Pakistan was nothing short of a thunder bolt, and was seen as a cleverly crafted move for the secession of East Pakistan. And Mujib from that day onwards was perceived as anti-Pakistan and an agent of the Indian agencies working together to destroy Pakistan. Just three years later, on 22 February 1969 in Dhaka, Defense Minister of Pakistan Vice Admiral A.R. Khan dramatically announced the unconditional withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy case against Sheikh Mujib Ur Rahman and other accused with him. At this moment, Sheikh Mujib was proclaimed the Bangabudhu and the uncrowned king of the Bengalis, later on to become the father of the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971. The month of February thus has a special place in the history of Bangladesh.

During his tumultuous political career Mujib had faced the wrath of the authorities many times and was imprisoned on many occasions. He remained confined in jail from 8 May 1966 under the Defense of Pakistan rules, and along with 34 others he was charged with a conspiracy to bring about the secession of East Pakistan from the country through an armed uprising. The government of the day had announced that Mujib had travelled to the Indian town of Agartala to ask for help and support from the government of Indira Gandhi for the dismemberment of Pakistan. News of the Pakistan government's “unearthing” of the case first appeared in the media when a sketchy press release late in December 1967 spoke of the arrest of a group of individuals. It was not till early January 1968, however, that the regime formally spoke of what it called a conspiracy that, in its words, had been spearheaded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  Interestingly, Mujib's name did not figure in the initial list of the accused, giving rise to suspicions that on second thought and with a view to discrediting the rising Bengali leader, the regime inserted his name in the list. The trial of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his co-accused got underway before a special tribunal in the Dhaka cantonment on 19 June 1968. It was presided over by Justice S.A Rahman, a West Pakistani, who was assisted by two Bengali judges, Justice Mujibur Rahman Khan and Justice Maksumul Hakim. A team of lawyers to defend the accused, including Britain's Sir Thomas Williams QC, swiftly took shape.

By this time the military regime of Ayub Khan had decided to start yearlong celebrations all over the country to celebrate ten years of the Ayub regime and highlight the progress and development during the Ayub Era. Z.A. Bhutto, the Ayub protégé, had parted ways with Ayub Khan, formed the Pakistan People’s Party and was up in arms against the Ayub regime. Bhutto and Wali Khan were arrested and put behind bars. In East Pakistan, political agitation against Ayub Khan reached increasing fury, with Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani leading the movement against President Ayub Khan.

As the Agartala case trial wore on, more social and political groups began to voice the demand for its withdrawal and for Mujib to be freed. A worsening political situation forced Ayub Khan in early 1969 to call a round table conference of political leaders in Rawalpindi. Under the banner of Democratic Action Committee, all the leading political parties got together, and the veteran politician Nawabzada Nasarullah Khan was the moving spirit behind this move. The united opposition now made a unanimous demand that Sheikh Mujib must be freed to attend the conference in Rawalpindi. Sheikh Mujib refused to be freed on parole and it was feared that the Bengalis will rise up in revolt if he was not released. So, under great public pressure, the government relented, and Mujib was freed unconditionally. Conditions had already taken an ugly turn with the shooting of the young student Asaduzzaman, a school student, also succumbed to police firing. In the cantonment itself, Sergeant Zahurul Haq, one of the accused in the Agartala case, was killed by soldiers on the pretext that he had tried to escape from custody. In Rajshahi, the academic Shamsuz Zoha was shot. It was popular fury that erupted in East Pakistan by February 1969. Angry crowds of Bengalis overran the residential quarters of Justice SA Rahman, who briskly flew off to safety in his native West Pakistan. Politicians across the spectrum demanded that Mujib be freed and the case against him be lifted. Young Bengalis, notably university students, banded together with an eleven-point programme for radical political change. The new honour accorded to Mujib was accepted by acclamation. On 24 February, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman flew to Rawalpindi at the head of an Awami League team to take part in the round table conference.

Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman was arrested after the launch of Operation Searchlight in Dhaka, flown to Rawalpindi and put behind bars in a high security prison in Mianwali. After the surrender in Dhaka and the installation of the new government of Bhutto, he was freed from jail on 8 January 1972, flown to London and then Dhaka to a tumultuous welcome by his people. During the Islamic Summit Conference hosted by Z.A. Bhutto in Lahore, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan accorded formal diplomatic recognition to the Republic of Bangladesh on 22 February 1974. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman flew to Lahore to attend the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). At Lahore airport, Bangabandhu was welcomed by Pakistan's President Chaudhry Fazle Elahi and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

As a band of the Pakistan Army played Amar Shonar Bangla, General Tikka Khan, then Pakistan's army chief of staff - and in March 1971 the man who had initiated Operation Searchlight in Dhaka and ordered Bangabandhu's arrest - proceeded to saluted Bangladesh's founding father.

Such is the irony of fate and human history.